Female Torah Scribes Do Painstaking Work In St. Louis

9:29 PM, Sep 21, 2006   |    comments
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  • Writing The Torah
  • By Karen Foss (KSDK) - The Hebrew word Torah means "to teach," or "to instruct." It is also the name of the most sacred text of the Jewish faith containing the first five books of Moses. Hebrew law calls for the writing of a Torah to be perfect. One misspelling and an entire scroll becomes invalid. Writing and restoring these ancient scriptures written on 100-year-old parchment is a task heavy on pressure and religious responsibility. Traditionally it's performed by male scribes called "sofers." But that tradition is slowly evolving. Shoshana Gugenheim is one of only four women in the entire world who have been trained to do this holy writing. "We write it like it's always been written," she said. Gugenheim has traveled from Israel to restore blurred letters and cracked ink of this well-loved Torah at Shaare Emeth Synagogue in Creve Coeur. It is sacred work. "Normally I'll pray, get up and do the morning prayers," said Gugenheim. "Then when I sit down to write, (I) say those intentions for writing, one of which is about stating that I'm writing this Torah for the sake of its holiness and that all of the letters that I write are for the sake of the creator." Holy words, unchanged for more than 3,000 years, must be painstakingly copied, without a single error to any of the 62 parchment panels. The Torah is elegant and challenging in its simplicity. Scribes spend up to a year learning to write its holy calligraphy. "Black fire on white fire is how the mystics think about it," said Gugenheim. "The negative space is as important as the positive space. But it's what you read between the lines literally, or what's in the spaces between the letters, that's the mystery." In writing the Torah no mistakes can remain, and some cannot be corrected. It is forbidden to scrape away any of the names of God that appear in several different forms in the text. "If you make a mistake when you're writing one of the names of God then you need to bury that panel," said Gugenheim. Although Gugenheim is an artist, this work allows no room for personal expression or record of her labor. "You don't sign it and there isn't a place where you put a signature on a Torah scroll. It doesn't belong to me," she said. There are about 300 certified Torah scribes in the world, only four of them are women. "It's very clearly stated in the Jewish law that it's forbidden for women to do this type of work," said Gugenheim. She says she risks disapproval, even violence from strict traditionalists. "I've kept it very quiet, and people ask all the time, 'Are you nervous? Are you afraid that someone will do something to you or to the Torah?' I don't know," she said. But as she works, Gugenheim thinks only of the history and faith of the Jewish people. "There is a tradition though when a scribe is writing, you say each word out loud before you write it, which is nice in that you've then spoken the entire Torah scroll." And next month, next year and next century, the story will continue, as another Jew opens a holy scroll, reads the words meticulously recorded by Shoshana Gugenheim and declares the Jewish faith unbroken through the ages.


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